Those of you who are familiar with golf in Portugal will have flown into Faro airport in the Algarve many times no doubt, but how many of you have landed at Faro and turned right, heading east along the coast to play your golf? The beautiful wind-swept coast of the Eastern Algarve is home to the Ria Formosa, an untouched coastal nature reserve where wonderful wildlife can be discovered including 30 different species of birds, and it is along this coast that a number of new golf courses have emerged.
I checked into the Vila Gale hotel in Tavira, a modern four-star hotel with comfortable rooms, excellent food and fantastic indoor spa. This pretty Portuguese town (40 minutes from Faro) has wonderful white-washed buildings and pretty cobbled streets, interesting archaeology and history, restaurants dotted along the river and lovely walks out across the estuary onto deserted windswept beaches. It's the perfect base for golf in this region as you can drive to the local courses easily and then when you return in the evening you have a great choice of Taverns in town to eat in.
The nearest course to Vila Gale is Benamor, less than 10 minutes' drive away, and it's a great choice for that opening round of golf at the start of your holiday break as it's not too difficult. Benamor was the first golf course to be built in the Algarve, designed by the legendary Open Champion Sir Henry Cotton, but its length hasn't stood the test of time.
Most of the holes are quite short, in fact I found several of the par 4s reachable with the wind assisting, but you have to be straight as there's not much room for error. Olive trees flank the rolling lush green fairways and bunkers are plentiful around the greens. The surfaces are excellent, although not fast, but so smooth you'll hole your share of putts.
If you only want to play nine then it's also easily done as the two nines return to the clubhouse and the ancient church, the former clubhouse; that provides the centrepiece of the course. There'll be a friendly starter to greet you when you arrive, ensure that you tee off in time and get round at a decent pace. Don't worry if the standard of golf you play is less than perfect, Benamor's elevated position affords visiting golfers with panoramic vistas of the rolling countryside, so just enjoy the views.
A little further along the coastal road are two spectacular courses - Quinta da Ria and Quinta da Cima. Both are presented in immaculate condition although quite unique in how they play. Quinta da Ria has a spectacular cliff-top setting where you'll enjoy sensational views across the Ria Formosa Nature Reserve. As such it has a slightly linksy feel and the strong afternoon winds can play havoc with your ball flight control.
The turf isn't your typical links tight lies but rather very lush and green, giving you luxurious lies where the ball sits up and allows fairway woods to be struck with ease. The large greens are very well thought out with interesting slopes and careful bunkering and huge lakes frame several holes. The only word of warning I'd give is to be careful of what time of day you play, if like me you choose a tee time at the end of the field you may find yourself waiting on every tee. It's indicative perhaps that speed of play is often an issue here because they've placed a welcoming bench on every tee, so at least you can sit back and enjoy the views!
Quinta da Cima is the longer of the two courses and as such a bit more challenging. Although it doesn't have the same sea views (well at least the glimpses are from afar) it does benefit from the close proximity to lovely fields full of oranges, while ancient carob and olive trees provide interest to every hole. It enjoys the same size and scope of greens as its sister course Quinta da Ria which means that you must play your approach shots with great consideration or else you might find yourself with a very long two putt for par!
Golfing enthusiasts who like the convenience of staying on site will no doubt love the Robinson hotel here. It's ultra-modern and has a lavish spa and well-being centre. It's a German-hotel group and as you'd expect from our neighbours on the continent the quality of service is high, and that's shown by the impeccable standard of the food served up in the all-inclusive buffet, where fresh sea food is plentiful and just one of the many delicious choices.
The absolute must-play golf course in this part of Portugal is definitely Monte Rei Golf & Country Club. This very exclusive private members club does welcome visitors at a hefty price but as you'll see below there are some golf travel operators like www.golfbreaks.com which negotiate great offers as part of their packages, getting you a substantial saving on the normal 190 Euro green fee. Either way it's worth every penny as you'll be treated like a VIP, have your name engraved on a personalised Monte Rei bag tag and I can guarantee you'll hardly see another soul on the course - true millionaire's golf!
A round of golf at Monte Rei is not for the faint-hearted, a buggy is a must as the climbs from tee to green can be enormous. I walked the course following the Europeans playing against Asia-Pacific in the Sir Michael Bonallack Trophy a few weeks ago and it felt like an expedition. The design is truly spectacular and the challenge is very tough. The course has been carved out of the indigenous olive and carob tree forest and weaves like a snake, with every hole doglegging in a clever way. The greens are enormous and quick, the highest standard USGA specification, and bright white sand sits inside the immaculately groomed bunkers. It's the fine details that really make the difference to the presentation of Monte Rei, like the green coloured sand supplied on your buggy to fill in divots, and the smart tee markers.
Every hole is unique and fun to play, but remember to bring plenty of balls, as along with the forests ready to gobble up wayward tee shots there are plenty of clever water hazards too.
The stretch of holes from 13 through to 15 situated at the bottom of the course valley is my favourite part of the course - an area with great wildlife and tranquillity. It's almost impossible to imagine how these golf holes were ever carved out of the original landscape here. Off the back tees the par 3 14 th is one of the toughest holes on the course. The world's top amateur golfers I watched were hitting long irons into the sloping green (200 yards away), many of their tee shots finding a watery grave in the river down the left of the long narrow green, or bailing out short and right of the putting surface to avoid the big bunker back left.
In my short three-night stay I didn't get time to play every course in the area but I am told that Castro Marim and Quinta do Vale are well worth a look too.
Next time you are planning a golfing break to the Portuguese sunshine consider heading right along the coast. Like me you'll discover that the Eastern Algarve has many hidden gems, it might not be as densely populated with courses and accommodation choices as its Westerly neighbour but those that do exist are fun to play and an enjoyable test for every standard of player.
HOW TO GET THERE
1. £269 per person (sharing twin)
2. £425 per person (sharing twin)
3. £649 per person (sharing twin)